Many ancient female royals are rarely talked about for a variety of reasons. One female monarch that we do not hear enough about is Gorgo of Sparta. You may recognise her name from Histories by Herodotus – as she was one of the few women who were even mentioned in his writings.
Gorgo was the daughter and only known child of Cleomenes I, King of Sparta. She was born in the early 500’s BC, but the exact date has never been discovered. It is known that she was married to King Leonidas by the year 490 BC. Further, she survived his 480 BC death. In addition, it is believed that she was alive during the reign of her son, Pleistarchus. Unfortunately, the length of her life during his time on the throne is not known.
Gorgo was raised to know literature, dancing, singing, and physical education like the other members of the Spartan nobility. She is known to have at least one son, Pleistarchus, who co-ruled after the death of his father in 480 BC. He died in 458 BC.
She was known to be a woman whose opinion leaders trusted. It was written in Histories that she advised her father to not trust a foreign diplomat named Aristagoras of Miletus. Aristagoras was attempting to convince Cleomenes to support a revolt by the Ionians against the Persians. Gorgo was only eight to nine-years-old when this occurred. Aristogoras told Cleomenes to send her away so they could speak in private. Cleomenes refused even after his visitor offered him a large bribe.
Historian, Helena P. Schrader has said that it is remarkable that anything is known about Gorgo at all. Schrader explained:
The most remarkable thing about Gorgo, wife of King Leonidas I of Sparta, is that we know anything about her at all. Herodotus and other ancient Greek historians are far more likely to mention Persian queens than the wives of Greeks – not because Persian women were more powerful than their Greek counterparts, but because Persians had several wives, and so it was sometimes useful to record by which of them a certain Persian figure had been born.
Since Greeks had only one legitimate wife, there was no need for such clarification when it came to prominent Greek citizens. Even the names of Spartan queens are rarely mentioned. We do not know, for example, the names of either Leonidas’ mother or his stepmother, the “second wife” who caused all the trouble in the Agiad family in the second half of the 6th century BC.
Athenians held gratitude for Gorgo due to her quick thinking that saved many of their lives. At one point, Persia (led by King Darius I) attempted to retaliate against Greece for the loan from Athens to the Ionians to help them defeat the Persians, but it was unsuccessful. They lost in the Battle of Marathon, and after the death of Darius, his son, Xerxes vowed to defeat the Greeks.
Gorgo was the only person to realise that a message had been sent to them (Gorgo and Leonidas) by Demartus in code on the stone regarding Xerxes plans. Demartus had no option but to write in code as he was behind enemy lines in Persia. The stone had wax over it, and Gorgo made the suggestion to scrape it off. They were then able to read the warning and send word to Athens so that they would be prepared.
Gorgo has gone down as one of the most influential and intelligent women in ancient history.